Keep­ing Up With the Jones

Feed­ing a me­dia ad­dic­tion at sea has never been eas­ier

SAIL - - Waterlines -

When it comes to com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy on blue­wa­ter sail­boats, I have al­ways been a Lud­dite. I never had any in­ter­est in high-fre­quency ra­dios and never car­ried one on any of my boats, even after Pac­tor ra­dio modems and the vol­un­teer Win­link ham net­work daz­zled us all with the prospect of free off­shore e-mail ser­vice. My rea­son­ing was sim­ple: I don’t go to sea to com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple. Quite the op­po­site.

After I got mar­ried and had a child I did suc­cumb to the en­treaties of my wife, Clare, and in­vested in a hand­held Irid­ium sat­phone. But I used it very spar­ingly. I mostly kept it turned off, stowed in a ditch bag, and turned it on briefly just once a day to phone home while on pas­sages. I also used it once in a while to con­fer with my fa­vorite weather-router, Ken McKin­ley, of Lo­cus Weather.

This past spring, as I planned a long transat­lantic de­liv­ery from France to the United States, Ken sug­gested it would be much eas­ier for him to keep track of me if I got a Garmin in­Reach Ex­plorer satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tor. I checked it out and was duly im­pressed: for a bit over $500 you get a sim­ple hand­held de­vice that for about $70 a month (no an­nual sub­scrip­tion re­quired) can send un­lim­ited 148-char­ac­ter text mes­sages via Irid­ium satel­lites from any­where in the world. Even bet­ter, it is also a transpon­der and can send con­tin­u­ous po­si­tion up­dates to an on­line map that can eas­ily be ac­cessed by fam­ily, friends and, yes, weather-routers. It can also send dis­tress calls to SAR (search and res­cue) au­thor­i­ties and can be used as a hand­held GPS plot­ter.

For a per­son like me with lim­ited comms re­quire­ments, this is a fan­tas­tic gizmo. As I sailed from France to Spain to Madeira and thence to Ber­muda— in com­pany with Clare and two friends, Michael and David— I was happy to re­ceive a brief fore­cast each evening from Ken, ex­pertly ab­bre­vi­ated sans vow­els to save char­ac­ters. I also en­joyed send­ing a text mes­sage each day to our daugh­ter Lucy, who was miss­ing both her par­ents.

What I hadn’t counted on was how this de­vice would af­fect other crewmem­bers. David, in par­tic­u­lar, quickly be­came ob­sessed with the thing. He soon fig­ured out there was an app you can down­load, Earth­mate, with which you can re­motely con­trol an in­Reach Ex­plorer with an iPhone or iPad. He loaded this onto his phone dur­ing our brief stop in Spain, con­nected it to my in­Reach unit and for the next month sent out an un­end­ing flood of text mes­sages to a long list of his con­tacts, im­plor­ing them all to pay at­ten­tion to the fact that he was in the mid­dle of the At­lantic Ocean. He sent mes­sages with his phone while ly­ing in his berth, and more an­noy­ingly, par­tic­u­larly liked to send them while on watch when I re­ally wished he’d pay closer at­ten­tion to other things.

We see this be­hav­ior all the time in this mod­ern age—phone zom­bies who walk around in a stu­por did­dling away on their de­vices, obliv­i­ous to ev­ery­thing around them. It’s bad enough on shore, but to see it hap­pen­ing to some­one on a blue­wa­ter boat off­shore was for me, rather de­press­ing. David had pleaded with me to join our crew and was keen to em­bark on his first pas­sage, but could not re­sist the al­lure of mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Both Michael and I chided him about this, gen­tly at first, then a bit sar­cas­ti­cally, sug­gest­ing he was wast­ing a unique op­por­tu­nity to com­mune with the ocean and get into the zen of blue­wa­ter sail­ing, but David paid us no mind. Then one day he found a pod­cast he’d down­loaded on his phone, by some ocean-sail­ing guru, who urged that it is best while on pas­sage to dis­con­nect and live in the mo­ment. Though he could not ac­cept this ad­vice from the peo­ple in front of him, David was happy to re­ceive it from his phone, and im­me­di­ately an­nounced he was in­sti­tut­ing “ra­dio si­lence.”

This lasted about a day and a half, then pre­dictably David’s re­solve weak­ened. Soon enough he was back on his phone, feed­ing his ad­dic­tion. s

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